History of the WHR: 1 - The Forerunners

The Welsh Highland Railway was formed by the linking of two much earlier railways, The North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways and the Croesor Tramway, by a new line between South Snowdon (Rhyd-Ddu) and Croesor Junction, some 8¼ miles in length. It is therefore necessary when considering the history of the Welsh Highland Railway to start with the history of these two lines and others associated with them.

The Croesor Tramway

The Croesor Tramway was the first of these to be built, being officially opened on the 1st August 1864, although evidence exists of traffic over parts of the line for up to twelve months earlier. The line was built by Hugh Beaver Roberts as a private undertaking constructed under wayleaves. Of 1’ 11½" gauge, the line ran from Portmadoc, where it had sidings on the quayside and, later, a transhipment siding with the Cambrian Coast line, to the upper end of the Croesor Valley, a distance of approximately 6 miles (although this was described officially in returns as 4½, 5, and even just 1¼ miles). Built to serve the slate quarries in the Croesor Valley, it was goods carrying only although in 1864 an application was made to Parliament “to provide for the maintenance and use by the public of the existing railway made by Hugh Beaver Roberts of Plas Llanddoget which commences near the rock or place known as Carrig Hylldrem in a certain field called Cae Ochor Rhainwal, part of the farm called Park and terminates at or near Ynys Cerrigduon at Portmadoc in the parish of Ynyscynhaiarn, together with station sidings and works and to adapt and use for passengers as well as other traffic.

Royal Assent was given to the Bill on the 5th July 1865. It is interesting to note that although the gauge was stated as 2ft, powers were given to increase this to 3ft, on application to the Board of Trade. The Bill also incorporated the tramway as the Croesor and Portmadoc Railway Company. By a statutory mortgage dated 23rd June 1870 the Company mortgaged its undertaking to Mary Elizabeth Littledale for £8000 at 5½ % interest.

The construction of the Tramway was of 20lb per yard wrought iron rails laid in chairs on timber sleepers. Because of the lightness of construction, it was only suitable for horse or gravity working and had the railway gone forward with its powers under the Act of 5th July 1865, it would presumably have had to relay the line within little more than two years of its building. In fact Charles Easton Spooner, the Engineer of the Ffestiniog Railway, prepared an estimate for the proposed work - some £14,960.

The line was to remain horse-drawn until re-laid to become part of the Welsh Highland Railway. Even then, part of the line from Croesor Junction to the quarries in the Croesor Valley remained horse-drawn, except on occasions, a farm tractor would haul wagons along the line. Unusually for a horse-drawn line, the tramway never owned its own horses but hired them from neighbouring farms.

The Gorseddau Junction and Portmadoc Railway

Linked with the Croesor Tramway at Portmadoc was the Gorseddau Junction and Portmadoc Railway . This joined up with the Croesor Tramway by Portmadoc Flour Mill (now the pottery). Originally a 3ft gauge line and known as the Tremadoc Tramway, it ran along the side of Y Cyt (today a land drain but once in use as a canal large enough for ships of 120 tons) and served an ironstone mine at Llidiart Yspytty. It is a possibility that the Tremadoc Tramway actually pre-dated the Ffestiniog Railway in the area for it is shown on maps dated 1846; more precise dating evidence is not available. In 1856 the Bangor and Portmadoc Slate and Slate Slab Co. Ltd. came to an arrangement with the owners of the Tremadoc line and built an extension to the Gorseddau Quarries to provide a convenient outlet for slate from the quarry to the quay at Portmadoc. The line was converted to 2ft gauge in 1878 and it was at this time that a link with the Croesor Tramway was made. The line was mostly gravity and horse-drawn although it did own a De Winton vertically boilered locomotive for a time.

The use of the 2ft line was short lived and had ceased by 1892. Parts of the trackbed are still recognisable in Portmadoc today, particularly in the embankment that runs alongside Y Cyt in Madoc Street. The stile crossing at the rear of the present-day Welsh Highland Railway’s car park is the site of the Tramway’s crossing of the Cambrian Coast line. But the most spectacular remains are the roofless shell of Ynyspandy Slate Mill, near Cwm Ystradllyn, now under the protection of the National Trust.

The North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways

In the north, the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways brought forward a scheme which covered almost all of the route eventually occupied by the Welsh Highland Railway, and in its initial concept, quite considerably more. The scheme stemmed from the success that the introduction of steam traction and regular passenger services had brought the Ffestiniog Railway. It originally proposed to build a narrow-gauge network in North Wales to link most of the larger towns. In brief, this invovled extending the Croesor Tramway from Croesor Junction through Beddgelert and Capel Curig to Bettws-y-Coed and thence on a branch which would split to reach both Corwen and Penmachno. A further line would run from Porthdynlleyn through Pwllheli and the alongside the Cambrian Coast line to Portmadoc to link up there with the southern end of the Croesor Tramway. As an alternative, it proposed for a third rail to be added to the Cambrian Coast line so that the line could serve both gauges. Hardly surprisingly both these proposals were opposed by the Cambrian owners. A further line would run from Dinas (3 miles south of Caernarfon) where it would share the station on the L.N.W.R. Bangor to Afon Wen line, to Rhyd-Ddu with a branch line leaving the main line at Tryfan Junction and running to Bryngwyn with an incline at the end to serve the slate quarries in the Moel Tryfan area.

In the event, applications were made to Parliament only for the lines from Croesor Junction to Bettws-y-Coed and from Dinas to Rhyd-Ddu and the branch to Bryngwyn. These were duly approved and the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways Company was incorporated by Act of Parliament on the 6th August 1872. The two approved railways were to be known as the General Undertaking and the Moel Tryfan Undertaking, respectively. Both capitals and incomes of the two undertakings were to be kept distinctly separate. Charles Easton Spooner was appointed Engineer of the new Company.

The General Undertaking, the proposed 23 mile line from Croesor Junction to Bettws-y-Coed, was never built and the Company sought and obtained an Act of Parliament dated 13th July 1876 allowing it to abandon this venture. The idea was not forgotten however. In November 1903 the North Wales Power and Traction Co. Ltd. obtained a Light Railway Order for a line from Beddgelert to Bettws-y-Coed but again no work was ever started and the powers lapsed in 1907. These powers were then acquired by the Portmadoc, Beddgelert and South Snowdon Railway (about more later) who also let them lapse. With that the scheme faded into oblivion.

The Moel Tryfan Undertaking was to construct a new line of 5½ miles in length from Dinas to Bryngwyn and a line of 7¼ miles in length from the former line at Tryfan Junction to Rhyd-Ddu. This Undertaking was the part of the scheme the directors devoted their attention to.

It is interesting to note that in the original Act and in all communications prior to opening it is the Bryngwyn line that is referred to as the main line and the Rhyd-Ddu line as the branch. Subsequent to opening, the position was reversed and the Dinas to Rhyd-Ddu line became the main line.

A prospectus was issued on the 23rd January 1873 with regard to the authorised capital of £66,000, by which time a contract had already been made with Hugh Unsworth M’Kie of Tremadoc for the contruction of the line and an agreement dated 23rd December 1872 had been entered into with the same Hugh Beaver Roberts who had been the instigator of the Croesor Tramway, to lease the Moel Tryfan lines for 21 years from their completion. This agreement was slightly modified in April 1873 and sanctioned by Parliament in an Act which received Royal Approval on the 16th June 1873.

Difficulties arose very early with the contractor over payment for work and in August 1874 Roberts repudiated the lease. The unsteady financial state of the Company forced it to avoid lengthy and expensive litigation to enforce the lease. Surprisingly, despite its precarious financial state, the Railway considered building a further line in 1875. C.E. Spooner, who was Engineer of both Ffestiniog Railway and the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways, proposed a rack railway, similar to the one running from Llanberis, to be built from Rhyd-Ddu to the summit of Snowdon. The argument was that the rack railway would increase passenger traffic over the North Wales Narrow Gauge. But the financial problems caused the scheme to be dropped, although it was ro re-surface in 1922 when the new Welsh Highland Railway considered building such a line. But after obtaining plans and quotations for a suitable locomotive, the Welsh Highland dropped the idea too. In February 1876, M’Kie surrendered possession of the works and plant. A new contract was entered into with J. Boys, who completed all but three miles of the line by the end of 1876.

The sections of the line from Dinas to Bryngwyn and from Tryfan Junction to Lake Quellyn were opened for goods traffic on the 21st May 1877. Passenger traffic commenced on the 15th August that year. A further ¾ mile section between Lake Quellyn and Snowdon Ranger was brought into service on the 1st June 1878. The remaining 2 miles from Snowdon Ranger to Rhyd-Ddu opened on the 14th May 1881.

The Company’s financial problems increased with the opening. The slate trade was suffering a depression at the time, and the line worked at a loss from the start. The Company owned none of its rolling stock, hiring it from a contractor who’s rentals fell into arrears. On 13th December 1878 James Cholmeley Russell was appointed by the High Court as Receiver. At this time C.E. Spooner severed his connection with the Railway; James Cleminson became Engineer and Locomotive Superintendant. Despite these problems, the Company gained authorisation in an Act dated 31st July 1885 to extend its line to Caernarfon Harbour. Presumably it felt that its dependence on the L.N.W.R. at Dinas was the root of its troubles and wished to avoid this dependency.

More on N.W.N.G.R. Rolling Stock

Further Schemes

Whilst the North Wales Narrow Gauge was busy working its completed section, various attempts were made either to reach Beddgelert from Portmadoc, utilising the Croesor Tramway, or to provide a through route by linking the North Wales Narrow Gauge and the Croesor Tramway. In 1879 the Croesor and Portmadoc Railway Company became renamed as the Portmadoc, Croesor and Beddgelert Tram Railway Company and proposed an extension 4 miles long between Llanfrothen and Beddgelert. In 1882, however, Mary Littledale secured the appointment of a receiver to this Company as the principal and outstanding interest on her mortgage then amounted to over £10,000. The North Wales Narrow Gauge had in fact beaten the Croesor Tramway into receivership, as previously noted, so that anyone acquiring the two companies could provide a through route from Portmadoc to Dinas with possible access to Caernarfon.

There was no lack of pretenders to achieve one or both of these objects. Schemes were put forward by the Beddgelert & Rhyd-ddu Railway, by the Portmadoc, Beddgelert and Rhyd-ddu Railway, by the Portmadoc, Beddgelert and Snowdon Light Railway, by the Caernarvon, Beddgelert and Portmadoc Railway, by the Beddgelert Railway, and the Portmadoc and Beddgelert Railway. All of these had the object of reaching Beddgelert by a variety of routes and guages. It was another of these seemingly endless permutations of names of places, the Portmadoc, Beddgelert and South Snowdon Railway which was to come closest to achieving the through route and was, apart from the Beddgelert Railway, the only one to commence building the proposed route.

The Portmadoc, Beddgelert and South Snowdon Railway

The Portmadoc, Beddgelert and South Snowdon Railway Co. (P.B.& S.S.R.) was incorporated under an Act of Parliament dated 17th August 1901. The Act gave the new company powers to purchase the Croesor Tramway from the Portmadoc, Croesor and Beddgelert Tram Railway Co., and this purchase was made on the 30th June 1901 by the payment of £10,000 to the Receiver of the latter company, James Cholmeley Russell, who was also Receiver of the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways. The P.B.& S.S.R. was authorised to construct a railway between Portmadoc and Beddgelert utilising the Croesor Tramway part of the way. The North Wales Narrow Gauge had already obtained a Light Railway Order on the 3rd November 1900 authorising it to extend from Rhyd-ddu to Beddgelert. Thus by purchasing the North Wales Narrow Gauge, the P.B.& S.S.R. could provide the proposed through route. The P.B.& S.S.R. was further empowered, by and Act of Parliament dated 15th August 1904, to construct a line from Dinas northwards to reach Caernarfon harbour. Although the P.B.& S.S.R. purchased land to this end, no work was ever commenced on this line which would have relieved the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways dependence on the L.N.W.R. at Dinas Junction.

Work was however commenced on the extension between Croesor Junction and Rhyd-ddu, although it was sporadic and piecemeal. Part of this work can still be seen today in the Beddgelert area. The rail bridge across the road leading into Beddgelert from the south and the nearby stone piers formed part of this work. They were never used - the Welsh Highland Railway chose a different route out of Beddgelert when it came into being. Across the river from the line of these works, remains of a low embankment built to take the line exist, running to a point just short of where the Welsh Highland Railway track crossed the Glaslyn river at Bryn-y-Felin. The P.B.& S.S.R. bridge across the Glaslyn was purchased but never put into place. It was sold off between 1908 and 1912.

It was the P.B.& S.S.R. who ordered and paid for Russell in 1906. With Beddgelert worn out and the N.W.N.G.R. unable to afford a replacement, the P.B.& S.S.R. were faced with a dilemma. Beddgelert was the only locomotive capable of hauling the slate trains on the Bryngwyn branch. Any disruption of services on this line could cause the quarry owners to look for alternative ways of moving their slate, perhaps never to return to the railway. Such loss of revenue would be disastrous to the N.W.N.G.R. and to the P.B.& S.S.R. when they completed their link line and took over the N.W.N.G.R. line. It was under these circumstances that the P.B.& S.S.R. took the unusual step of purchasing a locomotive to run on a line they did not own.

Tonnage of slate on the N.W.N.G.R. peaked in 1897 and declined thereafter. Passenger traffic started declining from 1908 when the railway faced increasing competition from road transport. The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 further hit demand as tourist traffic almost ceased. At this time passenger trains were cut to three trains daily each way. On the 31st October 1916 even this service was suspended, although the announcement of this added that it was hoped to resume full services at the end of the war. However, when the war ended in 1918, there was no resumption of passenger services and the line remained goods only.

With the reduction of services in 1916, Gowrie and Russell were more than sufficient to handle the demands of the line, now reduced to four trains per week on the Bryngwyn branch and trains only running on the main line to Rhyd-ddu on an “as required” basis, mainly carrying coal and small goods. With the rebuilding of Moel Tryfan , the opportunity was taken to sell Gowrie . Whether this was because as the newest of the locomotives it could fetch the best price, or whether because it was, by repute, less than satisfactory in operation is unknown. Whatever the reason, Gowrie was sold to the British Government in 1918 (note that other sources put this date as 1915, which is unlikely). Details of its service for its new owners are unknown, but in 1919 it turned up in Wakes Geneva Yard in Darlington and in 1922 it was to be found working on an aerodrome contract at Marske on Sea, near Redcar. It was advertised for sale in 1928 at the end of this contract and no further trace of it has ever been found.

By 1911, the P.B.& S.S.R. had all but totally abandoned their plans. The various local authorities interested themselves in the matter, seeking to find out why the proposed line was so delayed and proceeding to seek Light Railway powers themselves in 1914. The outbreak of the war forced matters into limbo, but with the conclusion of hostilities interest was revived. A Public Enquiry was held by the Light Railway Commissioners at Caernarfon on the 18th October 1921. It was stated that a joint committee had existed in 1914 called the Portmadoc, Beddgelert and Caernarfon Light Railway Committee, appointed by the following local authorities: The Caernarfon County Council, The Caernarfon Town Council, The Caernarfon Harbour Trust, The Portmadoc Urban District Council (then known as the Ynyscynhaiarn U.D.C.), and the Rural District Councils of Glaslyn and Gwyrfai. This Committee applied in November 1914 and again in November 1921 for an order to revive old powers and to incorporate a new company to run the proposed line, to be known as the Welsh Highland Light Railway Company. It was stated that the N.W.N.G.R. was then (1921) only carrying goods and the Croesor Tramway carried only goods and those by horse power. No construction had been done between Dinas and Caernarfon but the P.B.& S.S.R. had acquired a substantial area of land from the Caernarfon Harbour Trust. The P.B.& S.S.R. and the N.W.N.G.R. had both offered to sell their undertakings, so the way was clear for the new Company to provide the through route.

A report from Major G.C. Spring on the North Wales Narrow Gauge virtually condemned the track. The main line, except for a short section before South Snowdon, was unfit for passenger working and so required 300 new sleepers per mile. Timber on the bridges had rotten away. Bryngwyn station was unfit to take locomotives and the incline rope here was dangerously weak and only three wagons could descend at a time. Russell was reported as being in good condition, capable of hauling a train of nine coaches. Moel Tryfan , although fit to haul substantially less, was also described as being in good condition. The coaching stock, unused since 1916, stood idle in the yard at Dinas Junction, slowly deteriorating.

Spring also reported on the Croesor Tramway which, although purchsed by the P.B.& S.S.R., had not undergone any work to bring it up to the required standard for steam haulage and passenger traffic, contrary to the claims of the P.B.& S.S.R. Indeed, because of the light weight of the goods moved, it appears that little work other than the most necessary maintenace had been carried out since it was laid. His report stated that the track was still of the original cast iron material and most of the sleepers were rotten. Pointwork was described as primitive, of quarry type, and without switch blades. The bridge adjacent to the road over the River Glaslyn at Pont Croesor was very faulty.

Had not the various local authorities taken a hand, it is likely that the North Wales Narrow Gauge would have died within a few years, although it is possible that the Croesor Tramway, being horse-drawn and therefore of low running cost, might have survived. However, local authorities did exercise their not inconsiderable muscle, and the result was the Welsh Highland Railway.